Being all deep and stuff: Aristotle’s Triumph over Socratic Intellectualism

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Friday, May 28, 2010

What constitutes a blameworthy or a non-blameworthy action is one of the central questions of ethics. The better ethical theory will be the one that offers a more comprehensive perspective that allows it to account for the nuanced moral dilemmas of the human experience. In order for this task to be successful, Aristotle’s fundamental theory of virtue outlined in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics must be examined paying particular attention to voluntary actions along with his corresponding ideas concerning vice in Book VII paying particular attention to unhindered moral choice. Once the objections of Socratic intellectualism are clearly addressed, Aristotle’s theory outlining what constitutes a blameworthy/non-blameworthy action is better than Socratic intellectualism because it offers a more comprehensive account of human action.

            In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue which will be foundational for determining what constitutes a blameworthy/non-blameworthy action. Virtues consist of two kinds: virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtues of thought come about through teaching, and virtues of character: “arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit” (Aristotle, 845).   

The virtues themselves consist of a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency as defined by an intelligent person.  Some actions, however, (e.g. adultery) have no mean between the extremes of vice, but are always immoral. The reader should note that Aristotle contends that doing the virtuous action is not enough for someone to achieve perfect virtuosity. In order to achieve perfect virtuosity, a person must have the character quality so that the virtuous action will be chosen, but that person must also have the appropriate corresponding feelings when a particular action is performed. For instance, if someone acts in the capacity of a soldier that person must not tremble with fear during the experience, but feel a relative calm. This example also illustrates the human end or telos that Aristotle argues people are trying to achieve through virtue. The soldier’s telos is being a soldier that has enough soundness of mind so that orders are followed almost instinctively based on combat training and without troublesome negative feelings.

            At this point, Aristotle outlines what constitutes a voluntary action, which will be important for the later discussion of blameworthy/non-blameworthy actions. All actions are concerned with pleasure and people choose the “fine, expedient and pleasant” while the “shameful, harmful, and painful” are avoided (Aristotle, 848). More specifically, for an action to be done virtuously, the person must be in the correct state when performing the action. In other words (if the person were a man): “First, he must know that he is doing virtuous actions; second, he must decide on them (i.e. action must be voluntary), and decide on them for themselves, and third, he must do them from a firm…state” (849). Therefore, voluntary actions aiming at a virtue are not blameworthy unless certain mitigating circumstances come into play, which Book VII effectively clarifies and extends.

 Book IV begins to clarify the nature of non-blameworthy actions by first exploring their opposites, blameworthy actions, and organizing them into 3 conditions of character that are to be avoided: vice, incontinence, and bestiality. Someone acts according to vice when that person performs an action that is either on the extreme of excess or deficiency relative to that person. Aristotle defines an incontinent person as someone that: “ knows that his actions are base, but does them because of his feelings, while the continent person knows that his appetites are base, but because of reason does not follow them” (Aristotle, 876). Incontinence can occur for two reasons: either someone is impetuous and therefore that person acts impulsively or someone is incontinent because of sheer weakness of will. Incontinence is more immoral than intemperance because an incontinent person knows that a particular action is immoral but fails to refrain from doing it while an intemperate person simply does not know that a particular action is immoral. Bestiality, more appropriately termed beastliness, is a degenerated moral state in which someone acts on desires in the same way an animal would. Beastliness seems to be the worst moral condition of the three.

A proponent of Socratic intellectualism would object to Aristotle’s conception of incontinence discussed in Book VII because no one would knowingly do an immoral action. Once someone knows what is best that person will act in accordance with that knowledge of what is best. Aristotle would respond that empirically this is not the case. Someone addicted to drugs will know that refraining from using drugs is the superior alternative; however, the addict will continue to use the drug anyway. Therefore, an alternative explanation to Socratic intellectualism that can account for this knowledge disconnect is needed.

In order to solve this knowledge-disconnect-dilemma, Aristotle explains the nature of an incontinent person’s knowledge of virtue. He writes that: “we speak of knowing in two ways, and ascribe it both to someone who has it without using it and to someone who is using it” (Aristotle, 879). Additionally, in each way of knowing a person may or may not incorporate knowledge of particulars and/or universals. Furthermore, a subset exists within universals with one category referring to the agent and the other referring to the object. Aristotle even posits that there are other types of knowledge that these categories do not encompass such as when someone sleeps (the knowledge is not being put to use) or when someone is affected by sexual emotions (the knowledge is subverted or distorted by strong emotions).  An incontinent person seems to possess incomplete or a different kind of knowledge than everyone else does about a particular moral matter; therefore, Socrates’ paradox resolves itself (877). Incontinent people have flawed knowledge about a moral matter that causes them to act incontinently.

Returning to the broad scope of conditional characteristics to be avoided, all of the aforementioned character conditions including vice, incontinence, and bestiality are all blameworthy as a result of the concept of unhindered moral choice. Under each condition, each person had the choice whether or not to cultivate moral virtue; however, in each circumstance the person failed to cultivate virtue. Book II’s conception of the voluntary nature of actions is essential for this distinction. Each person under the blameworthy category voluntarily chose not to act virtuously.

In regard to the 3 character conditions to be avoided, someone might object that a drunkard acts completely out of ignorance; therefore, such a person’s actions should not be blameworthy. This example, however, is unsound if the implications are considered. Following this way of thinking, a drunkard could get away with any morally reprehensible act. Aristotle holds the drunkard accountable for his/her actions because that person voluntarily chose to get drunk; therefore, the correspondingly poor decisions made afterwards stem from the original decision. The original decision involved the possibility of choosing a virtuous decision, which was ignored; therefore, the drunkard’s acts are morally blameworthy.

Now that the blameworthy actions have been explicitly outlined, the non-blameworthy actions can be more clearly stated. Actions done out of total ignorance are non-blameworthy. Someone, however, cannot intentionally become ignorant of a certain situation in order to be free of blame. For instance, if someone was throwing javelins in a field, but failed to survey the area and make sure that no children or innocent bystanders could be hit by a javelin, then that person would be morally blameworthy if a javelin skewered someone. Aristotle also indicates that duress mitigates responsibility, but he adds a caveat: only under extreme circumstances. If someone puts a gun to a person’s head and orders that student to shoot another student; the student with the gun, even though under extreme duress, is still responsible if he/she shoots another student because that person still has the choice about what to do. However, Aristotle’s interpretation situations under duress that warrant blame is not clearly defined because if the same student has a gun to the head and is told to sign away all that the particular student owns then it would seem morally non-blameworthy to sign the document.

A proponent of Socratic intellectualism might interject in light of the duress examples that Aristotle’s theory, unlike Socratic intellectualism, seems to offer no clear course of action under certain circumstances. Socratic intellectualism, however, would say that once someone gains the appropriate knowledge that person will immediately follow the most moral course of action. Aristotle’s discussion of incontinence already established that Socrates’ objection simply does not hold in light of incontinence. Furthermore, Aristotle would concede in Book II that: “the present inquiry is of the inexact sort” (846); however, this seems to be more reflective of human experience. Human experience can be divided into situations consisting of blameworthy and non-blameworthy actions, but considerations of whether or not the action was voluntary and whether mitigating circumstances apply are both essential. Often these considerations are difficult to decipher, so careful deliberation is necessary.

            Some less controversial moral prerogatives that Aristotle would support are that disease and voluntary but non-deliberate acts perpetuated by minors are non-blameworthy moral actions. Aristotle’s moral exception for disease clearly assumes that the disease is of the kind that would distort or remove someone’s rational faculties, so that they can no longer voluntarily make choices as a normal person would. The non-deliberate act perpetuated by a minor assumes that minors have less experience of the world and therefore do not have fully developed rational capacities. As a result, without careful deliberation a minor may voluntarily make a mistake. Aristotle would consider this example to be more of a glitch on the road of development rather than a moral flaw. The saying that mothers sometimes use to defend their children would apply: “They just did not know any better.”

            After effectively responding to the objections posed by Socratic intellectualism, Aristotle’s theory outlining what constitutes a blameworthy/non-blameworthy action emerges as the superior moral theory because it offers a more comprehensive account of human action. Aristotle divides actions into blameworthy and non-blameworthy actions based on the concepts of voluntary actions, unhindered moral choice, and mitigating circumstances. Proponents of Socratic intellectualism claim that people will do the virtuous actions if they know what the virtuous actions are, but this is a gross oversimplification that Aristotle refutes with numerous counterexamples. Aristotle’s ethical theory does not offer carefully delineated rules on how to act; instead, it offers guidelines to be utilized as situations arise. As a result, Aristotle’s theory is more realistic and applicable; in short, Aristotle’s ethical theory is better than Socrates’ ethical theory of Socratic intellectualism.

           Works Cited

Cohen, S. M., Patricia Curd, and C Reeve, eds. “From Thales to Aristotle.” Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Hackett Company Inc., 2005.



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